Commentary: It’s an Electoral Bus, not an Electoral College
Senate pages carry boxes containing Electoral College ballots before a joint session of Congress to count the votes in Washington, Friday, Jan. 6, 2017. (AP Photo/Zach Gibson)
The vehicle we use to elect the president is more like an Electoral Bus than a College, because its purpose isn’t to educate, but to arrive at a destination: the selection of the president.
To get there, let’s say every state has its own Electoral Bus, District of Columbia too, so it’s a pretend fleet of 51. On election night, each state’s electors board their own bus and head out, but as long as they end up at the presidency, how they get tickets to ride is up to their legislature. That’s an exclusive state right granted by the Constitution.
D.C. and 48 states (including Utah) choose electors using a method called winner-take-all where the candidate with the most popular votes in each state gets all of its electoral votes. Winner-take-all has been around since the 1800s, so most people think it’s part of the Constitution. It’s not. It’s state legislation not requiring a constitutional amendment to be replaced.
In our two-tiered Electoral College, technically, regular voters choose electors and electors (the ones riding the aforementioned buses) elect the president. People get to be electors simply by knowing the right person in their party’s political hierarchy, and each party chooses a set of electors hoping to get on the bus.
One reason the Electoral College was designed that way was an attempt to more evenly balance power between smaller and larger states. Back then, with fewer than 4 million people nationwide, a single vote in small Delaware equaled almost three votes in big Virginia. Today, with 326 million people nationwide, a single vote in small Wyoming equals almost four votes in big California. However, as the smallest state, Wyoming still has the fewest electoral votes possible (three), while the biggest state, California, has 55 — and candidates ignore both. Why? Because both are predictable.
Any power smaller states gained under the original system has been lost to unpredictable battleground states, of any size. In 2016, why did Iowa (after primary season), with 3 million people, a strong rural component and six electoral votes (all like Utah), get 21 campaign events and Utah only one? Because Iowa’s a battleground state.
In Utah, we had 10 presidential contenders. The Republican won the statewide popular vote with only 46 percent of the total. The other nine candidates combined won 54 percent. The result? The six electors chosen by winner-take-all to ride our Electoral Bus to its destination represented fewer than half of our voters. That’s how Utah contributed to the infamous popular vote/electoral vote split, and with margins in presidential contests growing tighter every cycle, keeping these state winner-take-all laws makes the possibility of more splits loom over every future election.
When candidates and their campaign managers plan routes to the presidency, they look at a map of the United States and simply take for granted every state that’s predictable, zeroing in on those that aren’t: 10-12 battleground states where all the candidates, their surrogates, money and promises go. The election for the only national office we have is determined not by the entire nation, but by a handful of fickle states with overblown electoral power that we other states surrender to them by keeping winner-take-all to elect the president.
Newer legislation to choose riders for our Electoral Buses is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Recent passage in Connecticut brings membership in the compact to 11 states plus D.C. adding up to 172 electoral votes. Down the road, when states equaling another 98 join, membership will reach the 270 votes required to win the presidency. In the election that follows, participating states agree to appoint electors not from the party of the statewide winner, but the nationwide winner.
When that happens, big states, small states, big cities, small cities, rural communities nationwide — where you vote won’t matter, that you vote will. Every vote in states like Utah will be as powerful as every vote in states like Florida, and candidates must go everywhere to get them. On that election night, for the first time in American history, finally, electors representing the nation’s entire vote will ride Electoral Buses to their destination: the selection of the president.
Bunnie Keen grew up in Idaho, attended college in Utah and invites all fellow Utahns to go to nationalpopularvote.com and learn about how to make Utah, Idaho and all other ignored states matter in presidential elections.